Thursday, 19 October 2017

Mitcham Common survey - A reflection

From August 1983 to September 1984 I led a team of six recent graduates employed to conduct an 'Ecological Survey' of Mitcham Common. It was funded under the Manpower Services Commission's 'Community Programme'. The timing was far from ideal because most of the time was Autumn and Winter, whilst by July we were stuck into writing our report. Nevertheless, we managed a great deal and produced a useful report. Looking back, I certainly learned a great deal from the project, and I know that at least one other team member benefitted from the experience and went on to a career as an ecologist.

But, I hear you ask, 'were the results reliable and trustworthy?' Well, they were as good as we might hope to achieve. Where possible, we sought expert advice to validate our diagnoses, and I am pretty sure that most of the results were reliable; even if there were misidentifications in places. At the time, I felt the biggest problem area was the macro-fungi; this remains my biggest concern in terms of diagnostics. Today, I have greater misgivings about some of the recommendations that were made. In hindsight I (as team leader and editor) lacked the experience to make some of the judgments I would have made today. Hindsight is a wonderful thing!

There were about 60 copies of our report; most of which went to the Board of Conservators and to the London Borough of Merton. Two went to the then Nature Conservancy Council and one to the London Ecology Unit but I cannot recall any others going anywhere useful. How many survive? Very few, I suspect, and of those most will be in inaccessible personal libraries or filing systems. I expect many will have been pulped!

Fortunately, I do have a couple of copies and last year I decided that it was a lamentable waste of public resources to have the report but not to have it in an accessible form. I therefore OCRd the whole report (nearly 300 pages of tables, diagrams, maps and text). The OCR process and scanned illustrations required a lot of work to turn them into a decent machine-readable version, so in the end I re-typed many of the tables and re-drew the graphs. Sadly I did not have the original raw data so some of the graphs are best estimates based on the originals. Nevertheless, the whole package is now available in machine-readable form. I have sent it to the Warden so he has a copy, and hopefully it will be made available to a wider audience; not that it is thrilling reading, but it is a valuable baseline.

Future thinking

In my view, Mitcham Common is one of the most important wildlife sites in south London and therefore it is important to make sure that there is a permanent archive of relevant science. There is a very old paper on the birds by my father (sadly his diaries were lost when Mum cleared his effects) and of course there are papers by Louseley and Parsons on the botany. Since 1984 I have published accounts of the aculeate Hymenoptera and some aspects of the Diptera, but there is a lot that has yet to be studied or reported. I have a good many more Diptera records now, so maybe I will write another account. That leaves an awful lot more to do.

The 1984 team barely scraped the surface of the Coleoptera and Arachnida, whilst I dare say a lot more could be made of the Lepidoptera (I know David Lees did a lot on micro-leps in the early 1990s but I guess his report has been lost).

Looking at the 1984 report, I lament the lack of foresight on my part. I should have created a photographic library of the site; it has changed immensely and having detail would help to put some context into the changes in both the animal and plant components. I also wish that I had been more diligent in collecting Diptera from 1984 onwards – I am sure the fauna has changed markedly as the site has dried out very substantially.

So, the big question is 'can anything be done to create a new baseline?' I don't feel equipped to take on the full panoply of taxa and my botany is too rusty to re-do that part of the study. I do wonder, however, whether there is scope to gather together a group of local specialists to re-survey the site and to try to fill in some of the gaps using modern techniques? If there was interest amongst local Coleopterists, Arachnologists, Mycologists etc. then perhaps a new project could be developed, perhaps providing training to a new generation of aspiring specialists. What is needed is a vision to provide focus, some leadership and willing volunteers: any takers? At the moment I am able to offer time and enthusiasm, but I would not do so unless there is a group that would also be willing to participate.

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